September 07, 2016

TAMPA, Fla. (AP) Gerald McCoy knows better than to draw any conclusions from preseason success.

The Tampa Bay Buccaneers led the NFL with 16 sacks - one more than the Denver Broncos, however the four-time Pro Bowl defensive tackle isn't ready to declare the team has fixed its pass rush.

''It's only preseason, it doesn't count until Sunday,'' McCoy said looking ahead to the Bucs' regular-season opener against NFC South rival Atlanta.

''Yes, it's a positive and we can build off that. We've shown that we can get there, but ... everything changes when it counts,'' he added. ''Game plans, matchups, tempo all that stuff changes. So, it's a positive we can build off of, but it doesn't matter until Sunday.''

Bolstering an inconsistent pass rush and improving a porous secondary were the team's top priorities during the offseason. The Bucs finished with 38 sacks last season, when opposing quarterbacks completed 70 percent of their passes and threw for 31 touchdowns.

General manager Jason Licht signed defensive end Robert Ayers Jr., four-time Pro Bowl cornerback Brent Grimes and linebacker Daryl Smith in free agency, then used the club's first two picks in the draft to select cornerback Vernon Hargreaves III and pass rusher Noah Spence.

Another key move was Coach Dirk Koetter's decision to hire former Atlanta Falcons coach Mike Smith as defensive coordinator.

Players have embraced what they describe as a multi-faceted, aggressive scheme that produced encouraging results during the preseason. Thirteen different players had at least half a sack, with reserve Jacquies Smith leading the way with four.

McCoy, who led the Bucs with 8+ sacks last season, is confident the team is capable of replicating the success in the regular season.

Ayers had 9+ sacks for the New York Giants in 2015, and Spence is a second-round draft pick out of Eastern Kentucky who likely would have been a first-rounder if not for off-the-field issues he had early in his college career at Ohio State.

William Gholston is the other starting end, backed up by Jacquies Smith, a third-year pro who entered the league as an undrafted free agent and had 13+ sacks for the Bucs over the past two seasons.

''Now we can actually game-plan people, single out some guys, find some good matchups,'' McCoy said. ''In preseason, you're kind of just going, beating the guy in front of you. It's still going to have to be that, but we can game-plan guys, the quarterback protections, those kinds of things.''

Koetter also likes what he's seen, adding the team is developing the type of depth necessary to have a consistent rush, beginning Sunday against the Falcons' Matt Ryan.

''I also think our defensive staff, led by Mike, is doing a really good job of moving those guys around,'' the coach said.

''They're really playing offense with defensive players. That's what offenses do, they move guys into different positions to try and get them on matchups, and our defense is doing the same thing with the pass rush right now.''

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